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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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The King of Vodka

It is hard to ignore a story that starts with a penniless serf and ends with a $4 billion international vodka empire. So it is not surprising that business journalist Himelstein, despite having no Russian or background in the area, was sucked in by the biography of Pyotr Smirnov.

Pyotr Smirnov built one of Russia’s first brands, using sales and marketbuilding techniques that were decades ahead of his time. Yet his success was hampered by the growing instability in Russia, war, a strengthening temperance movement, and a largely worthless brood.

Hard going, indeed, but excellent grist for storytelling, and Himelstein is in her element, recounting one of the great business stories of the past century with insight and wit. This is not just an able portrait of this gentrifying merchant family, but a richly-textured account of life, love, labor and loss before and after the Bolshevik revolution.

One thing: If you are eager to pour yourself 150 grams and hunker into a soft couch with this book, you have wait a bit. It doesn’t hit the shelves until May.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2009